MILWAUKEE – Two brothers who are Milwaukee firefighters were off-duty when their wives called them to the scene of a burning SUV that had a woman and her two young children trapped inside.
Joel and John Rechlitz were among the crowd who worked to rescue the family Sunday afternoon.
"Once you see a burning child, I mean, it doesn't matter who you are, firefighter or not," Joel Reichlitz told The Associated Press on Monday. "You are going to do whatever you can to save that child," Joel Rechlitz said.
The 32-year-old woman from Tennessee was driving the SUV when it hit a tree and burst into flames, police said. Videotape of the rescue shows a group surrounding the flipped, burning vehicle. Two men used pipes to break the windshield. The crowd then pulled out the woman and her 2-year-old daughter.
The woman's 4-year-old son was still trapped.
The Rechlitz brothers took turns reaching for the boy through the windshield, but were unsuccessful at first.
John Rechlitz reached in again but couldn't find the seat belt release; someone gave him a knife to cut the car seat's restraints.
Off-duty police Lt. Mark Wroblewski, who lives nearby, arrived with two fire extinguishers, and he and Joel Rechlitz tried to hold back the flames.
"When I pulled out of the vehicle to call for a knife, he stopped crying. I thought we had lost him," John Rechlitz said. "When I started cutting (the seat belt), he started crying again."
Joel Rechlitz said the extinguishers bought them time. "Five, ten seconds made the difference between this boy living and this boy dying," he said.
Children's Hospital of Wisconsin identified the boy as David Harper, who was in critical condition Monday; officials there set up a news conference Tuesday with his father, James "Chris" Harper. Police have said the boy has burns on 30 percent of his body. The Rechlitzes were treated for burns to their hands and arms.
Joel Rechlitz said he's watched the video several times.
"You tell stories but it really gives it justice — the severity of the situation as well as panic in everyone's voices," he said.